Key West, Fla. — During a workshop demonstration of easy ways to make canapes for parties, chef Alice Weingarten mentions her credentials: She's been giving parties since she was 8 years old and at 12 was catering parties for her parents, she says.
"My father only drank champagne and my mom loved caviar, so I was off to a good start," she tells participants at her "Bubbles and Bites" workshop at a food and wine festival here.
Weingarten, who operates Alice's Key West, an acclaimed restaurant on Duval Street, is a tall, vibrant redhead who wears her own unique chef's attire: Her soft toque and chef pants are fashioned from cheetah-print cotton and her white coat is more like a blazer. A string of pearls, sneakers and "cat" glasses (she has 17 pairs) completes her outfit.
She's always hated the traditional chef's uniform, she says, since her student days at The Culinary Institute of America. "I always felt like a dork."
Weingarten was born into the food business. "I went to work with my dad," she says. He was in the wholesale food business, so she got early behind-the-scenes exposure to restaurant and hotel kitchens.
Her father was also a great cook who made wonderful French omelets and other simple fare at home, she adds. "Mom was in gourmet clubs and worked with caterers and went to lot of parties. I was doing classical French and Chinese cooking at age 11." (These are her two favorite cuisines.) When Weingarten was 17, her carrot cake recipe was published in Gourmet magazine.
"As a kid I traveled with my parents to Greece, the Middle East, and North Africa," says Weingarten, who grew up in Port Washington, Long Island, N.Y. Her traveling influenced her cooking and she says she was doing "fusion" long before anyone knew what it meant. She calls her culinary style "New World fusion confusion."
After graduating from The Culinary School of America, Weingarten came to Key West as an extern and fell in love with the place, she says, although marriage took her back to New York for a period. She began a catering business there, but eventually returned to Key West and in 1996 opened her own restaurant.
Weingarten has plenty of advice for her party-ready workshop audience.
"I chose things you can do at home. You can set these up ahead and put them together just before serving." It's easy to create delicious canapes, appetizers assembled on toast rounds, and still be able to enjoy your own party, she says encouragingly.
"It helps to have a party where people are interactive with each other. It's fun if you have people to pass (the food) for you."
Weingarten likes to use unusual trays, something "different from the silver serving trays we all grew up with." She suggests using mirrors, for example.
A couple of tips to make work easier: Use plastic squirt bottles for adding liquids or sauces; and for decorative piping, she holds up a pastry tube filed with cream cheese and says, "You can make one of these with a zip-lock bag."
Weingarten shows her workshop students how to make four different canapes.
The first: smoked salmon on crisp rye rounds. "You can use any store-bought smoked salmon that you like, slice it into strips, roll them up with a sprig of dill and it looks like a flower." It's topped with a seasoned cream-cheese and sour-cream combination that can be made ahead.
Next: Weingarten's justifiably popular spicy tuna tartare. It's mixed with siracha (a Vietnamese garlic-chili paste), sesame oil and pickled ginger juice, is topped with honey-wasabi sauce, and served on cucumber slices.
The mojo-marinated pork tenderloin is another example of the chef's fusion style. Weingarten uses a fried, cumin-dusted won ton as the vehicle ("the vehicle carries it to your mouth") for Cuban-style pork with black bean and mango salsa.
Last: beef tenderloin carpaccio, a classic Italian dish of ultra-thin sliced raw meat that Weingarten serves on toasted French-bread crostinis with shaved Parmesan and truffle oil. "I think the most interesting part is the truffle oil," she says. White truffle oil is expensive (about $36 for a small bottle), "but a little bit goes a long way."
As for drinks: "I begin all of my parties with champagne," Weingarten says. However, there's a wide choice of other champagne-like sparkling wines that can be served. Prosecco, a sparkling wine from Italy, is very popular, as are bubbly wines from Spain.
"Bubbles go with everything," she says. A student comments that it's said there are 40 million bubbles in a bottle of champagne.
"If you stick your finger in the glass of champagne, you get rid of the bubbles," Weingarten says. But why would anyone want to do that?
Smoked Salmon on Toasted Rye Rounds With Dilled Cream Cheese and Sour Cream
1/2 cup cream cheese
1/4 cup sour cream
2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill (reserve some for garnish)
1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pounds smoked salmon (allow about 1 ounce per canape)
8 to 10 slices of rye bread
Ahead of time: Mix the cream cheese and sour cream with the dill and refrigerate in a pastry bag until ready to use.
Slice the salmon into thin strips. With a 1 1/2-inch cutter, cut out 3 to 4 circles of bread from each slice of the bread. Toast them in a 325 F oven until crisp and set aside.
To assemble: Roll up each slice of salmon so it looks like a rose. Place one on each slice of bread. With the pastry bag, squeeze a dollop of the cream-cheese mixture on top of each canape and garnish with a bit of the fresh chopped dill.
Makes 25 to 30 canapes.
Spicy Tuna Tartare on Cucumber Slices With Honey-Wasabi Sauce
1 1/2 pounds sushi-grade yellowfin or blackfin tuna with good red color and no smell at all
3 tablespoons siracha (see note)
2 teaspoons juice from a jar of pickled ginger (use the ginger as optional garnish)
2 teaspoons toasted Japanese sesame oil (see note)
2 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 European cucumbers sliced 1/4-inch-thick
Honey-Wasabi Sauce (recipe follows)
(Do-ahead options: The tuna can be prepared ahead of time and stored for a few hours in the refrigerator.)
If using a food processor, cut tuna into small pieces and toss together with siracha, ginger juice, sesame oil and salt. Place mixture in food processor and pulse until blended well and mixture begins to hold together. Don't over-mix it.
If preparing by hand, chop tuna into very tiny pieces that will hold together in a ball, and mix in other ingredients.
For Honey-Wasabi Sauce:
3 tablespoons dry wasabi powder (see note)
2 tablespoons honey
1 cup sour cream
Whisk all ingredients until just blended. Don't over-mix or the sauce will get too thin.
To assemble: Place a 1/2-ounce scoop or a demitasse spoonful of the tuna mixture on the center of a cucumber slice. Top with a small dollop of Honey-Wasabi Sauce. (This is easy if you put the sauce into a squirt bottle.) Garnish with a sliver of pickled ginger, if desired.
Note: Siracha is a Vietnamese garlic-chili paste. It, toasted Japanese sesame oil, and dry wasabi powder are available in Asian sections of markets, or Asian markets. Also available online.
Mojo-Marinated Pork Tenderloin on Crisp Won Ton Wafers With Black Bean and Mango Salsa
For Mojo-Marinated Pork:
Two 1-pound pieces of pork tenderloin small enough in diameter to fit on a cracker when sliced
Homemade Mojo (recipe follows), or 16-ounce jar of store-bought mojo (see note)
Black Bean and Mango Salsa (recipe follows)
Crisp Won Ton Wafers (recipe follows)
(Ahead of time: Marinate the pork a day or two in advance of the party; it can be grilled a few hours before the party and kept at room temperature. Do-ahead options: Make the salsa and store in refrigerator for up to a day. The won tons can also be prepared a few hours before the party.)
1 cup olive oil
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
3/4 cup orange juice
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
8 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon grated orange peel
1 tablespoon dried oregano
2 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 teaspoons ground black pepper
In medium bowl, whisk all ingredients to combine.
Marinate pork in mojo for 24 to 48 hours in the refrigerator. Grill the pork about 10 minutes on each side on stovetop grill or outdoor grill until medium-rare to medium. Let cool to room temperature. (Never cut the meat immediately after it comes out of the oven. When you let it rest, the juices go back into the meat.)
For Black Bean and Mango Salsa:
14-ounce can black beans, rinsed and drained
1 ripe mango, diced very small
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
1/4 cup finely diced red peppers
1/4 cup finely diced green peppers
1 tablespoon finely diced red onion
Juice of 1 lime
Salt and pepper to taste
Mix all ingredients together and chill.
For Crisp Won Ton Wafers:
2 tablespoons cumin powder
Vegetable oil for frying (about 2 cups for a large saute pan)
6 won ton skins (available in Asian markets), cut into quarters
Toast ground cumin in a dry saute pan for 1 minute on medium heat and set aside. Fill a large frying pan 1/4 full with vegetable oil. Heat the oil to medium-high. Fry a few pieces of won ton skins at a time until golden brown. Drain fried won ton wafers on paper towel to absorb excess oil. While still warm, lightly dust wafers with toasted cumin.
To assemble: Slice pork tenderloin into 1/4-inch slices. Place 1 slice of meat on top of a won ton wafer, and top with a dollop of the salsa.
Makes 25 to 30 canapes.
Note: Mojo, the sauce-marinade of Spanish origin, is available ready-made in grocery stores where Latin and Spanish foods are sold.
Beef Tenderloin Carpaccio on Toasted French Bread With Parmesan and White Truffle Oil
1 pound beef tenderloin tip
25 slices French bread, 1/4 inch thick, toasted golden
2 ounces shaved Reggiano Parmigiano, or other good Parmesan cheese
White truffle oil
Ahead of time: To best cut raw beef to the shape you want, put it in the freezer for at least 24 hours. You will never get it thin enough unless you freeze it first. Slice beef as thinly as possible with a slicing machine (best way), a mandoline, or a very sharp stainless steel or ceramic knife. The raw meat will oxidize very quickly, so until you are ready to assemble the canape, keep it wrapped between two sheets of plastic wrap or freezer paper and push all the air out. The bread can be sliced and kept wrapped until toasting.
To assemble: Put a slice of carpaccio on each piece of toast and top with a few shaves of Parmesan cheese. Drizzle a couple of drops of truffle oil over the top.
Makes 25 pieces.
(Recipes from Alice Weingarten, chef-owner of Alice's Key West, Key West, Fla.)